A Game Changer for the Abortion Debate

National Review Online | Published on October 15, 2012

By George Weigel

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Pro-life commentary on the October 11 veep debate understandably centered on Vice President Joe Biden’s duplicitous (or, if you prefer, grossly ill-informed) attempt to square the circle and be a pro-life Catholic and a pro-abortion pol. And why not?

For in the space of a few sentences, Biden managed to make four errors that ought to have registered on any serious observer’s Gaffe-O-Meter. He misrepresented the opposition to abortion mounted by popes and bishops (which is based on biology and philosophy, not specifically on Catholic theology or “sectarian” premises). He channeled his inner Cuomo-Kerry and declared himself personally opposed to abortion but unwilling to impose his personal views on a pluralistic country (a delicacy Biden wouldn’t dream of applying to Obamacare, which is now rejected by the majority of this pluralistic country). He tried to tie Todd Akin around the necks of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan (imagine the howls if Ryan had — correctly — associated Obama and Biden with Sandra Fluke). And he falsely implied that his was the true Catholic “social-justice” position (whereas John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly taught that the pro-life cause is the Catholic social-justice issue, and that any attempt to drive a wedge between “social-justice Catholics” and “pro-life Catholics,” such that “social-justice Catholics” who tacitly or blatantly support the abortion license earn a Get Out of Jail Free card, has zero standing as a serious Catholic endeavor).

Ryan, for his part, correctly said that settled Catholic teaching on abortion is based on science and reason, and he nicely interjected sonograms — undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons for the growth of pro-life sentiment in the United States, which is now the majority sentiment in the country — into the discussion.

But there was an opportunity here for a game changer, of the kind that has made Congressman Ryan a welcome new voice on budgetary, regulatory, and entitlement issues. Imagine this replay of the last question of the vice-presidential debate:

RADDATZ: This debate is, indeed, historic. We have two Catholic candidates, first time on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.

RYAN: None.

(Ms. Raddatz’s jaw drops. The vice president is rendered temporarily speechless. The audience gasps. Congressman Ryan lets his surprising answer sink in a moment and continues.)

Let me explain, Martha. When I say “none,” I’m speaking about abortion, as I assume you were, as a public-policy issue. My opposition to the abortion license that Roe v. Wade created is based on science and reason.

Biology and embryology teach us that the product of human conception is a human being — nothing more, but certainly nothing less. No scientifically literate person denies that; it’s a fact, not an opinion. As for reason, well, an elementary sense of justice — of fairness — teaches us that innocent human life is inviolable and merits the protection of the laws. That’s the same sense of justice that tells us not to discriminate against another because she’s not a he, or because her pigmentation is different from mine, or because his parents came to this country from Belarus ten years ago; it’s the same sense of justice that has made America the most racially egalitarian society in human history. Science and reason have made me a pro-life public official. Science and reason are what the Supreme Court ignored in 1973 in Roe v. Wade and in 1992 in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The so-called pro-choice position is the unscientific position, and it’s the unreasonable position.

But my faith does shape my thinking on these questions, and let me tell you how. What my faith adds to the mix is a deep sense of compassion and an urgent sense of responsibility for women caught in the dilemma of a crisis pregnancy. My faith teaches me that those women in crisis pregnancies should not be left alone, clinging to some spurious “right.” My faith, and the experience of the pastors of many denominations with whom I’ve discussed this, teach me that the termination of a pregnancy by abortion often multiplies the trauma of unwanted or unplanned pregnancy. My faith teaches me that I have an obligation, not only to that unborn child, but also to his or her mother.

My faith, which instructs me to honor the dignity of every human person, helps me understand the implications of what science and reason teach me. And one “dignitarian” implication of science and reason is that the pro-life position is the pro-feminist position, because abortion on demand has been a great deal for irresponsible and predatory men — and a very bad deal for women.

And I’m not alone in this, Martha. There are thousands of crisis-pregnancy centers across our country, where women who have been abandoned by those irresponsible or predatory men can find the compassion and care they deserve from people who take the unique dignity of women seriously – people who are eager to help a woman in a crisis pregnancy bring a child to term and then put that child up for adoption, or bring a child to term and then raise it with love in a caring community. In all the arguing about abortion these past 40 years, the tens of thousands of volunteers who staff those crisis-pregnancy centers are almost never mentioned. But they are real American heroes, offering women in crisis something more — something more humane — than a technological quick fix to a terrible problem.

No woman in America has to face a crisis pregnancy alone. That’s something we should all be proud of. And we should thank God for inspiring men and women across America with the faith to go beyond the obvious facts of science and the obvious dictates of reason in offering compassionate care to women in crisis pregnancies.

It would have been instructive to hear Vice President Biden attempt a response to this. By immediately taking the Catholic-weirdness card out of Martha Raddatz’s hand — and the hands of every pro-choice Catholic pol from sea to shining sea — that kind of response might have radically changed the terms of the abortion debate. Biden would have been unable to dance the Cuomo-Kerry shuffle; nor could he try a Pelosi and suggest that the pro-choice Catholics are the real “social-justice Catholics.” Such a response would have underscored the grievous errors of both Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. It would have unveiled the true face of the pro-life movement, after decades of cultural and media distortion, and a new and entirely welcome debate — a who’s-the-real-feminist debate — would have ensued.

America is slowly moving in a pro-life direction even as we become a more secular country, in terms of both personal practice and the ambient public culture. Making absolutely clear that the pro-life position, as a matter of public policy, is the scientific and reasonable position — and that this is why educated, serious, and reasonable people hold it in increasing numbers — not only calls out the Joe Bidens of this world for their misrepresentation of the Catholic Church. It also sets the political and cultural foundations for moving beyond Roe and Casey in the years and decades ahead.

- George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William
E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.